Before there was the novel, there were the stories...

by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Trial by Battle: A Murder Mystery - Part the Second

Sunshine's grandfather had hugged and thanked them for the dozenth time before hobbling of with a smile on his face, leaving them standing in front of the gaol.

Rory turned to Shannon. "That wasn't.? it couldn't be..?"

Shannon laughed, "Dinnae be daft. 'Twas not. D'ye think that Lawrence would stand by while his darlin' Josephine languished in a Darlington gaol?"

Rory nodded, "Nay, I suppose ye are right. Still.." He cast a glance back at the gaol. "She is so like…"

"Aye, that she is," said Shannon. "Sure, and now what do we do?"

Rory thought. "Aye, well, first I need to find a sword and some armor."

Shannon smiled, "That would no doubt be useful."

Rory thought some more. "And it would be wise to learn somethin' o' me opponent."

"Good thinkin', me lad," his friend said.

"And mayhap we should try to find out what really happened to the murdered woman," Rory finished.

"She was murdered," Shannon replied.

"Och, I know that, but how? And who by?" Rory answered irritably. "If we can find out, mayhap we can avoid the trial by battle."

Shannon agreed. "That might be the wisest choice, Rory me lad. Particularly for ye." He thought a moment. "Ye should go find out about armor and the heavy assigned to see to it the woman hangs. I will see what I can be after doin' t' find out about the crime."

Rory rubbed his neck, remembering another hanging.

The Irishmen agreed and went off on their respective errands.

Rory headed for the village forge to talk to the blacksmith. He found the man, short, thickset and with lots of burn scars, standing over his forge pounding on steel while a boy pumped the bellows to intensify the heat. The man made Rory wait until he finished the edge he was hammering out before he would stop and talk. Rory stood in the shade and watched the work while the boy stared with his mouth open at him.

Plunging the hot steel into a bucket of water that then plumed with steam, the blacksmith turned and came over to Rory. "Well then lad, what can I do for ye?"

"I am after needin' some light armor and a sword."

The smith considered the man in the colorful clothing of a minstrel. "For a mummer's play?" he asked.

Rory laughed but not without some trepidation showing in his voice. "Nay, would it were so, but I am needin' them for a battle.. a trial by battle. Don't worry, I was not always a minstrel."

The smith had settled back on his squat frame when he had heard "trial by battle". "Sooo," he drew out, "the old man found his pretty granddaughter a champion. Ye may rue that day, minstrel."

Rory nodded, "Aye, and that I may. What can ye tell me about all this?"

The smith motioned for Rory to follow him into the little cottage next to the smithy. He gestured to a chair at a little table, and took a pitcher and cups from a shelf. He poured ale for Rory and himself, then sat down at the table. "What be thy name, minstrel?"

Rory told him.

"Rory, my lad, there are two tales by that one. I shall tell thee both." He took a draught of his ale and began. "'Tis said the fair Sunshine and this woman Beatrice were in love with the same man. But Beatrice's father has many sheep, a pig and two goats, where Sunshine has only her pretty self. So the man chose Beatrice and Sunshine killed her in revenge."

Rory waited, then asked, "And the other story?"

"The sheriff of this town is an ill-visaged man who hath conceived a lust for our pretty prisoner. She had refused him. He took advantage of the mysterious death of Beatrice to take his revenge. He said Sunshine did it. He holds sway of every man in the town, so he knew no man would come forward to champion her and he would be done with the wench."

He leveled a speculative look on McGuinness. "So the old man has found someone, a stranger, to champion her.. and a man who has let some years fall between wielding a sword and now. Why will ye do it? Ye have no tie to the girl, do ye?"

Rory shrugged, "It be that hard to explain. Let us just say I feel I must. So can ye fit me with armor and a sword?"

The smith let the earlier comment go. "D'ye have any money?"

Rory shrugged again, "Not much. I don't suppose me lad Shannon and me can sing for it? I should not need it for more than the once."

The smith guffawed.. "methinks thou will be singing with the heavenly host soon enough. Mayhap ye should save thy breath." He seemed to consider for a moment. "Lad, I should like to see the girl saved. She was kind to my wife when she was ill and dying. I have some old armor and a rusty sword that I can lend thee, and I will make them ready for thee. But tell me this, lad," he added, "Can ye do it?"

Rory laughed, "I will or die trying'."

"Aye," was all the smith replied.

Rory took a nervous gulp of his ale. "What can ye tell me of the man I must fight?"

The smith got up, took the pitcher, and refilled their cups. "'Tis the murdered girl's intended, Leofu, a brawny youth with no brains but lots of muscle."

Rory stared. "Och, faith, I shall just have to find a way to best him." He asked, "Can I practice in ye'r forge yard?"

The smith nodded and they finished off their drinks.

Meanwhile Shannon was thinking of how to get at the truth of the matter. Not knowing what Rory now did, he had to find his own source of information. Shannon had a method by which he always found out what he needed to know about a town, and that was to find a pretty young girl starved for romance. His lute in tow, he nosed around some of the houses on the outskirts of town. He was rewarded quickly with the sight of a young woman with her skirts tucked up baring her legs as she stomped around in a vat of water and suds.

The laundress looked up when Shannon hummed a little tune to find the man leaning on the side of the bat, which came up to his chest. She immediately started to smooth her clothes, without dislodging her hiked up skirts. "Sir, I did not hear ye come up. I am such a sorry sight.." she stammered. Strange good looking men were not unheard of in the town, but this one was better looking than most.. and smiling at her.

"Nay, nay, colleen, ye are a sight for sore eyes. I have not seen such shapely legs in many a month." Shannon was as smooth as glass, even in withdrawal.

"Oh, sir, nay, that cannot be. I hear a strange note in thy voice.. where are thee from?" she asked coquettishly.

He bowed slightly, and doffed his cap to her. She was enchanted. "Shannon O'Neill, of County Tyrone in Ireland, at ye'r service, bonny lass," he said with a flourish.

She started to tuck her hair up into her scarf so it would not be hanging in her face. He reached up and stopped her hand. He pulled at the scarf and it came free, allowing her dark hair to fall in cascades over her shoulders. He sighed with pleasure. "Och, machroidhe," he breathed.

The young woman touched her own hair and smiled delightedly. "Really?" she asked, having no idea what he had said.

He nodded and kissed her hand. Then he kept hold of the hand to help her out of the vat. She loosed her skirts so they fell around her bare ankles. "My name is Rowena," she told him.

He looked up with his eyes shut as if savoring a delicious sound. "Rowena" he sounded out slowly and melodically. He took up his lute, which she had not noticed before, and strummed a few chords and sang in a husky voice, "Rowena.. lovely, lovely Rowena, wash my soul clean of all that sorrows it.."

He probably could have had her right then and there.. but of course, he was being true to Heather so he was not planning to have her anywhere. But he did hold out a steadying arm as his voice crooning her name overcame her. "Dear lass is there somewhere we can sit.. ye are exhausted off ye'r pretty tiny feet."

She nodded languidly and motioned to some upturned washtubs they could sit on. He led her as though he was leading the Queen of the May over to the tub and seated her, joining her on the adjacent tub. She gazed at him through dark lashes He smiled into her eyes and mumbled something in Gaelic that she was sure were words of love.

He picked up his lute again and began to sing. His voice was not deep but resonant and sweet, lyrical and rich with his brogue. He sand a song he had learned many years ago about how Guenevere had been tried for treason by King Arthur and sentenced to be burned at the stake. Then Lancelot came along and rescued her. Rowena listened enraptured.

When the ballad was finished she sighed. "That is such a romantic song. I wish there was a Lancelot for my friend Sunshine."

Without betraying that this was the very topic he had hoped to broach, Shannon asked, "Lovely Rowena, who is she and why is she after needin' a rescue?"

Rowena sighed, thrilled to have a story this pretty man wanted to hear. "The sheriff says she killed that bi.. that awful woman Beatrice. In revenge for Beatrice winning the man they both love."

Shannon leaned his chin on his hand and closer to her this way, smiled directly into her eyes. "Aye? And ye dinnae believe she did it?

Rowena protested, "Nay! She was never in love with Leofu! Why would she kill for him?"

Shannon gazed and Rowena felt faint. "But the bi.. the awful woman is dead. Who killed her then, me darlin' girl?"

Rowena looked around to see if anyone was listening. Then she leaned closer to Shannon. They were almost nose to nose. "Well," she whispered, "If you ask me, it was Leofu himself." She closed her eyes. He leaned forward and gave her a soft, lingering kiss. He was pleased to feel his body stirring, but repressed his urges nonetheless.

"Now, colleen, why would the man kill his only beloved?" Shannon said, his lips millimeters from hers again.

Rowena was flushed with the pleasure of the kiss. "Because he was not her only love…" she said dreamily.

Shannon's lips spread in a smile. "Och, aye. And how dye know this, me pretty one."

Rowena smiled at being called pretty. "Because my brother is the one she was untrue with."

Shannon rewarded the woman with another soft, lingering kiss. She leaned into it and nearly toppled forward when Shannon sat upright. He put his cap back on his head, picked up his lute, and said to Rowena, "Temptress! I must leave ye or me darlin' wife Heather will have me skin." He stood, bowed, and took his leave.

Rowena just whined, "Wife!" and sat pouting on her washtub.

Shannon found Rory in the smithy's yard hefting a sword that was as long in the tooth, perhaps, as Sunshine's grandfather. He held it expertly in his two hands and was testing its weight and balance.

"Ye can take the boy out of the army, but ye cannae take the army out of the boy, me lad," Shannon observed, getting a dirty look for his reward. "Where is the armor?"

"The smith is cleaning it up now," Rory replied.

"Getting all the rat turds and spider webs out I be thinkin'?" He ducked a blow from Rory's free arm.

Shannon told Rory what he had found out and Rory told Shannon what he found out. Together the tales made quite a pretty picture.

Rory asked, "Now how do we expose this bastard, Leofu?"

Shannon shrugged. "Methinks the sheriff's not after wantin' to investigate things much. So mayhap there is a witness.. While ye hone ye'r ancient sword skills with ye'r ancient sword, I'll be after lookin' into that."

Rory laughed, "And this time, no kissin'."

Shannon gave him a mock look of horror. "Saints preserve us!" He looked at his friend's sword and shook his head. "Sad. Very sad."

Getting more information was not easy. The townspeople were terrified of the sheriff and not inclined to stick their necks out when the gallows was being erected on the town common before them. Shannon thought to talk to Rowena again but decided he had probably ruined that source when he mentioned his wife. But it made him think of Rowena's brother, the fair Beatrice's paramour. He went looking for the man, a woodcutter by trade he learned, and found him in a glade splitting firewood.

The man considered Shannon warily. "So ye are the wastrel who seduced my sister."

Shannon threw up his hands, "'Twas nothin' more than a kiss! Well, two kisses."

The woodcutter nodded and said, "And now she is wailin' her misfortune fallin' in with a married man."

Shannon could say nothing, so he just displayed his best toothy smile.

The man urged, "What do ye want, minstrel? Ye are not here to ask for my sister's hand."

Shannon decided to broach the subject directly. "Ye'r lovely sister told me ye were more than a little acquainted with the late Beatrice…" he began.

The man swung his ax down in an arc that made a loud whoosh-thunk sound when the blade pierced and stuck in the wood he was splitting. Shannon jumped a bit.

"I knew Beatrice, aye. What of it?" the man glowered.

Shannon took a small step back trying to be out of easy reach of the ax next time it came down. "D'ye believe the fair Sunshine killed her?"

Rowena's brother gave a short scornful snort. Then he just looked at Shannon and with his eyes eloquently expressed his reluctance to say another word.

Shannon pressed, "But ye know somethin'.. I can tell. And ye cannae let the innocent be hanged. Ye must come forward."

The man glowered. "Mind thy own business, minstrel." He went back to cutting wood and no matter how Shannon prodded and urged, would say nothing more.

Back at the smithy Shannon gave Rory the bad news. "Me lad, I think ye will have to do battle."

Next: Trial by Battle contines

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .